For brothers Bryson and Ryan Robertson and their friend Hugh Patterson, it started as a hedonistic plan to sail and surf their way around the world. But their three-year Ocean Gybe journey turned into something much, much more.

The three professional engineers from British Columbia set out on July 5, 2007, from Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, aboard their $150,000 sailboat, the Khulula. Only Ryan had ever sailed offshore before, but that didn’t stop them from attempting the longest crossing of their entire trip at the outset—from Cabo to the Marquesas Islands, 5,500 kilometres and 24 days away. Midway through, they were so remote that a rescue would have taken a week. “It was both frightening and rewarding,” says the 30-year-old Bryson. “You have to be self-reliant.”

From there they hopscotched their way along island chains to New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia, and across the Indian Ocean to Ryan and Bryson’s boyhood home of South Africa. Continuing east they tacked across the Atlantic to the northern coast of South America, through the Panama Canal and up the west coast of Central America to link their circumnavigation back to Mexico. Then they took the scenic route home via Hawaii and the B.C. coast. They arrived in Vancouver on September 6, 2010. In total they’d been away for more than three years, spent 300 nights and days at sea (almost all out of sight of land), and visited 30 countries.

One of the worst parts of the trip was the amount of plastic pollution they found on the oceans and coastlines. “The reality is much worse than we ever could have imagined,” says 32-year-old Ryan. As they learned more about the garbage problem, they started talking to local schools and communities about it. While sailing up the Central American coast, they supported a bill to limit garbage in Costa Rica and another to protect turtle nesting beaches in Nicaragua.

Since being home, they’ve continued to talk about the problem of plastic pollution to more than 12,000 students. And that message will also be loud and clear in a movie on their journey that is being released this year. “If 10 people made a change at home after meeting us then I’m satisfied,” says Bryson.

This profile is part of our top adventurers feature, The Elite, from our Spring 2012 issue.